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What should I expect when I apply for SSD?

Your initial application will require you to submit medical records and information about your job history, education, and ability to function.  Unfortunately, in Missouri, less than 30% of initial applications result in an award.  You can expect a denial letter soon after your initial application.   This decision is made by the Disability Determination Services office and is not made by a judge.  An applicant is then given 60 days to appeal and ask for a hearing.  DO NOT ignore your denial letter if you receive one after applying on your own.  You want to get to an attorney with that letter as soon as possible.

Once an appeal is filed, it is likely to take 12-18 months to get a hearing in front of a judge.  This is a daunting amount of time, I know.  It is often financially crippling to an individual and family as they wait for this hearing date.

It is extremely important that an applicant continues to get medical attention as they wait for their hearing.  It is never a good thing to appear for a hearing and tell the judge that you have not seen a doctor since your initial application.  This will be seen as a reflection of the extent of your disability.  In other words, the judge will think, “it must not be that bad if she hasn’t seen a doctor or gotten medications in over a year.”  I recognize that often people do not have health insurance during this time.  I encourage my clients to apply for Medicaid and to look into the insurance marketplace to get insurance if possible.  If not, it is helpful to go to a clinic with a sliding fee scale based on income.

Often times, the Social Security Administration will send you to a doctor of their choosing to assess your disability and ability to work.  In my experience representing applicants, these evaluations are often not thorough and the doctors often lack credibility.  An attorney can help undermine the opinion of this expert.  If the doctor says you can work, the judge is likely to agree, without proper preparation and cross-examination.  

Once your hearing date is set, you will appear before an Administrative Law Judge who will ask you a series of questions.  You will be asked about your job history and the physical requirements of each job.  Further questions will likely focus on your ability to do certain tasks.  If you have a mental health claim, there will be specific questions asks about how your psychiatric condition affects your ability to function.  It is important that you are prepared for this line of questioning.  Sometimes the judges ask very few questions, not allowing you to explain our situation accurately.  Your attorney will also ask you questions to bolster your position.  It is very important to have an attorney at this stage who knows how to conduct direct examination of you at your hearing.

At your hearing, there will likely be a vocational expert testifying.  This person is experienced in job placement, statistics, and knowledge of the Dictionary of Occupational Titles.  This is a publication that lists jobs in the U.S. with descriptions and facts on each.  His job is to tell the judge that there are jobs out there that you can perform.  This part of the hearing is highly technical.  You will not succeed at the hearing without having an attorney experienced in the cross examination of this expert.  

If you are successful at this stage, you will begin receiving benefits.  Sometimes there is a delay in you actually receiving your check as the SSD Administration reviews your past income, and current income if you are receiving long term disability, workers’ compensation benefits, or other income.  

If you do not win at this level, you can take the case to the Appeals Council.  They can either deny your appeal, overturn the decision, or send it back to the hearing office for further review.  If you lose at this level, the case can be filed in Federal Court.  You certainly need to be represented at the appeals level of this process.

One thing I cannot stress enough is the importance of having a relationship with your attorney.  You want to meet with her and have ongoing contact throughout the process.  Many big disability firms don’t even have you meet with an attorney at the initial consultation, and don’t meet you until minutes before the hearing.  This is not how I practice law and not how I conduct my cases.  I represent people all over the state, and if geography keeps us from meeting frequently in person, you will have ongoing phone calls with me and we will meet well before your hearing to prepare.  You will feel like your attorney knows you, which is vital as you go through this process.